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Line: Chiefs -2.5, Over/Under: 45
Yahoo Inside Slant:
The NFL suspended Kansas City Chiefs starting right tackle Donald Stephenson for the first four games of the 2014 season for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances.
The Chiefs were informed of the league's decision on Friday morning.
"Obviously losing Donald is disappointing, but we are in full compliance with the league's policy. We will have no further comment on the situation," the team said in a statement.
Stephenson, 25, has played in every game since being a third-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. He started seven games in both 2012 and 2013.
"I'm extremely sorry that I failed to check with the NFL, NFLPA or Chiefs medical team before I took a medication that requires a therapeutic use exemption," Stephenson said via a statement. "The rules are strict and without a therapeutic use exemption, the consequence is a four-game suspension. ... It is not a mistake I will ever make again."
He is permitted to play in the Chiefs' final two preseason games and will be eligible to return to the active roster on Sept. 30. Stephenson is the team's starter at right tackle.
--Based on the depth charts of the 32 NFL teams in the second week of the 2014 preseason, the Kansas City Chiefs had the youngest starting offensive line in the league.
Through two preseason games, they look like an inexperienced group that's learning on the job. Whether they can improve enough to keep quarterback Alex Smith and running back Jamaal Charles off the injury report in the regular season remains to be seen.
In the Chiefs' 28-16 loss to Carolina, the No. 1 offense had five possessions in the first half. It wasn't pretty. The starters were unable to score a touchdown, just as they were shut out in the previous game against Cincinnati. Charles was back in Kansas City with a sore foot and after playing the first half, Smith was just sore. He was sacked twice, took several big hits just as he threw the ball and was chased from the pocket in all five possessions. He never appeared comfortable in the pocket.
In a game where Kansas City was flagged 13 times, four of those were holding calls, including penalties on starting left tackle Eric Fisher and starting right guard Zach Fulton. Left guard Jeff Allen could not handle the quickness and power of Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei who crunched Smith for a sack. Running back Knile Davis couldn't handle Luke Kuechly as the Carolina linebacker roared through the A gap and smothered Smith.
"We have a young offensive line and they are going to have to learn," said head coach Andy Reid. "We are going to feed them the things they need to get better. We are not hiding that part of it."
Whether judged by experience or age, the Chiefs are pro football's baby blockers, averaging 2.6 years of experience and 23.8 years of age with their No. 1 group. That includes rookie Fulton; right now he's one of 10 rookies that teams listed as starters last week.
Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Carolina, Dallas, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Seattle - all have a majority of young blockers in the starting lineup, but none as young as the Chiefs. Third-year right tackle Donald Stephenson is the oldest player in the starting offensive line; he's currently 25 years old and will turn 26 at the end of September. The oldest starter on the 31 other teams is at least 27 years old and there are 23 teams with a starter or starters that are 30 years or older. Among those other teams with young lines there are Super Bowl victories in recent seasons, including last year's championship run by the Seahawks.
Is this abundance of youth a good thing for the 2014 Chiefs offense? "It means I've got guys with fresh legs, they are hungry to learn and get better," said offensive line coach Andy Heck. "It also means they've got to grow up fast.
"There are no excuses in this league. We have to get out there and do our thing and do it well."
The baby blockers on the Chiefs' offensive line are a product of general manager John Dorsey and Reid's desire to build through the draft - all five starters are Chiefs draft choices. Three other teams have five of their own picks in the starting offensive line: Cincinnati, Green Bay and Seattle. To that group can be added Pittsburgh and San Francisco; both start four draft choices and the fifth starter is a college free agent they developed in house.
Developing a group of home-grown blockers is tough these days because of the salary cap and free agency. Given the maturing process young players go through, combined with the time necessary to create the continuity so important to good offensive-line play and the window for realizing a payoff with a young offensive line shrinks considerably.
Often the words, "we have a young offensive line" become an excuse for poor performances. That was the case in the first half of last season when the right side of the Chiefs line struggled with Jon Asamoah at guard and Fisher at tackle. The offense became more efficient and productive in the second half of the schedule when they went older at right guard, bringing in Geoff Schwartz to fill the spot.
This year, the Chiefs lost their best blocker when left tackle Branden Albert departed in free agency for Miami. They also lost both Schwartz and Asamoah to the Giants and Falcons respectively. Rather than sign linemen talented enough to challenge for a starting spot, Reid and Dorsey went after veterans that appear to have done little to push the starters for their jobs.
It's important for Smith and the few playmakers in the Chiefs offense to see consistency from the baby blockers so the line must mature beyond its years. Combined, the five starters have only 76 regular- and post-season NFL starts. That's an average of 15.2 starts per man, or less than one full-league season.
Is it possible for the coaching staff to speed up the maturation process?
"It happens, it happens because you get thrown into the fire," said Heck, who is in the fire himself. "You had better hit or you get hit."
Notable Quotable: "Last year [the coaches] came in and let a couple things slide with us. Now we have to focus on the little things. They've given us the breakdown on teams that have success. After their first year usually it's much tougher and they start to slip on doing the little things. We aren't going to do that." --- Tamba Hali